VFX: <i>Alice Through the Looking Glass</i>
Issue: June 1, 2016

VFX: Alice Through the Looking Glass

Alice Kingsleigh tumbles through a mirror, returns to Underland and battles Time to save the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. Directed by James Bobin and produced by Tim Burton, the new adventures offer myriad opportunities for visual effects, and the filmmakers have gone above and beyond to pack the feature with everything you can imagine — and then some.

Lead VFX studio Sony Pictures Imageworks (www.imageworks.com) did an estimated 1,700 VFX shots for Alice Through the Looking Glass, says Jay Redd, who served as VFX supervisor for the film with Ken Ralston. “It’s one of the biggest films to go through the company. I think 90 percent of the movie has some form of VFX in it, from matte paintings and wire removals to fully digital-rendered shots, including digital doubles.”

Double Negative contributed several hundred VFX shots, including a number with the Mad Hatter plus the opening pirate chase and stormy sea.

Returning to Underland for the Alice sequel meant returning to what Redd (pictured below) calls “photoreal fantasy” where live action elements and sheer fantasy co-exist. “It’s a difficult line to walk,” he notes. “It’s full-on fantasy yet has a tangibility to it so you feel it could exist. Composite shots can’t be so out of control that they don’t feel real, yet you should be able to do some crazy things in Underland.”

Ken Ralston and many of the artists and animators who worked on Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton, returned for Alice Through the Looking Glass. But with six years of technical advances between the films, the familiar cast of characters was due an upgrade.

“The assets served as a really good foundation, but everyone got an upgrade since everything has gotten better over time: We’re better at cloth and fur, for example,” says Redd. “And we can retain more of the actors’ performances, too. For Tweedledee and Tweedledum we were able to create Matt Lucas’s face using different texture projection methods, which allowed a more nuanced performance. That was a nice advancement for us.”

Arri Alexa was used in its 3K OpenGate mode to capture a lot of the above-ground action before Alice returns to Underland. But everything in the fantasy realm was captured against bluescreen with the Sony F65 CineAlta camera at 4K. Live-action production was done at Shepperton Studios and Longcross Studios in the UK.

“Camera sensors have changed dramatically, so shots retain an immense amount of detail,” says Redd. “The movie will go to IMAX and 3D, so everything is very immersive and feels epic and massive. That means every detail has to be paid attention to — no more covering things with grain and emulsion.”

Alice Through the Looking Glass was shot flat; Ed Marsh served as the stereographer with Prime Focus World performing the bulk of the 3D stereo conversion. Fully-digital shots were rendered in two eyes to support the stereo team.

“This movie has a lot of depth and atmosphere in the air, which looks really beautiful in 3D,” Redd notes. “There’s time travel across the Oceans of Time, which adds new dimensions and layers but forced us to really pay attention to the relationship of speed versus scale. Water spray, lightning, fog, mist — we got all that depth in the stereo conversion.”

One of the most challenging new visual effects conveys the process of time travel. Director James Bobin provided the idea of the massive Oceans of Time to somehow capture and replay Alice’s memories. “He wanted a totally different view of time travel, not a tunnel with light or hyperdrive,” says Redd. “James was intent on having images as the visual key in time travel, and the process needed to feel organic not machined. We aimed to do something different and epic.”

Alice sees images of everything that’s ever happened to her contained in the waves. Some memories are from her past and some have just occurred — in fact, they didn’t even exist when the animators were working on the shots.

“We had digitized the entire first film so we could use sequences from it in the time travel; some moments we recreated from different perspectives,” says Redd. “We had to make these moments feel fully dimensional in the water, almost like holographic sculptures in the waves. We did tons of 2D processing before any renders were done in 3D; those were some of the most expensive renders in the film.”

When Alice steals the Chronosphere, the object that powers all time in Underland and that can travel through time itself, everything around her goes from solid to liquid and becomes the Oceans of Time. It took “months and months to previs, shoot, animate and render” this ‘liquifaction,’ says Redd. The Imageworks FX/simulation department “created fully textured and lit models and used [Side Effects’] Houdini sims to melt them over a massive scale and rapidly transform them into the huge waves that blend into the Oceans of Time. We can do ocean sims that look really good today. But the ocean also had to be art directed: gigantic crests of waves with images in them plus water spray, white foam, lightning and electricity. It all had to feel identifiable yet so big and unworldly that it could contain all the events of Underland.”

Another new concept is the rusting that occurs when Time, who’s played by Sacha Baron Cohen, breaks down. “When that happens, everything in Underland is covered with rust and decay effects, including Alice,” says Redd. “The rust had to feel almost like a sentient creature, very aggressive. It’s an unspoken character – and it couldn’t just be a blend or a wipe.”

Lidar scans were done for almost every element in the movie from big village and castle sets to actors. “Then we built tools for the animators so they could draw lines around things to control the spread and pace of the rust; we had to be able to art direct the phenomenon,” Redd explains. “When the world comes back to life — and that happens quickly — we had to ‘undo’ the rust. We created a specialized and controllable technique to have the rust fall off and disintegrate in a puff of dust and not pile up.”

Other VFX include Time’s all-digital Seconds, who resemble steampunk robots, the back of Time’s head with its clockworks and his open chest that features a smaller version of the 10-story clock in his castle. The interior of Time’s castle is all digital with no physical set pieces.

Digital makeup effects were used in post to distress the face of Time as he breaks down and also to ‘youngify’ the Mad Hatter and Red and White Queens whose backstories are key to the plot. Digital doubles were employed for actors doing impossible stunts — such as extending Alice’s bluescreen tumble through the sky to make a very long fall — and in shots where they appear smaller in the distance.

The complexities of Alice Through the Looking Glass comprised a “two-and-a-half-year dance” that required painstaking choreography. “I can’t praise enough our support crews; without our producers, CG supervisors and coordinators, the film would have been in disarray,” says Redd. “We continually build tools and workflows to allow the departments to work more closely together, and [Solid Angle’s] Arnold proved to be an incredibly good renderer for huge amounts of geometry like Time’s castle and its environs — it’s the only render software we use now.”

The VFX dance extended to coordinating the moves of multiple facilities: Imageworks in Culver City, CA, and Vancouver plus the talents of Double Negative in Vancouver and London.  

“Working in person is always better, but we have some amazing tools for doing videoconferencing at your desk or in screening rooms,” Redd reports. “Our ItView synchronous playback and color tool won a scientific and technical achievement Oscar, and with it we can mimic what’s happening at the studio on any workstation anywhere in the world.”